The growing pains of the Stoic movement

Modern Stoicism is a thing. It has been in the page of major newspapers (e.g., here), magazines (e.g., here), and assorted news outlets (e.g., here). Stoic Week and Stoicon are annual international events, and a number of new books about Stoicism have been published both by popularizers and scholars. There are Stoic blogs (like the one you are reading), podcasts (here is my own, in case you haven’t checked it out), and Facebook pages. Since the goal of Stoicism is to make us better people, more sensitive to injustice, and more helpful to the human cosmopolis, this is largely a good thing.

I say largely because just like in any other successful movement, it was inevitable that modern Stoicism would eventually spun a number of sub-groups, some of which are in danger of turning a good thing into something debatable, or even downright despicable. At the cost of going to be accused of gatekeeping, exclusionary attitude and so forth, I’m going to spell out my two cents about this, in the spirit of stimulating an open and frank discussion among people who genuinely care.

What’s happening to Stoicism is by all means not peculiar to it. Take Christianity, for instance. It has its “mainstream,” both Catholic and Protestant, but it also has its fundamentalism (a word that originally simply meant “a return to the fundamentals”), as well as its corruptions, like the abomination known as “prosperity gospel,” or the “muscular Christianity” anti-immigration and misogynist movement of the late 19th century.

So what is there to be concerned for modern Stoics? The first, though admittedly least problematic, stop, is “traditional Stoicism.” These are people who think that a religious belief in the divine and in providence is an inevitable component of Stoicism, without which one has simply betrayed the ancient philosophy for one’s “assumed” modern worldview. Traditional Stoics accuse the rest of us of changing things around to make the philosophy “more palatable” to modern sensitivities.

It is undeniable that the ancient Stoics frequently invoked “god” and did believe in some sort of “providence.” Nobody can read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and miss that. At the same time, it is also very clear that the ancient Stoics themselves did not see an unavoidable connection between their idea of providence and their ethical practice, as Marcus Aurelius repeats several times in the Meditations. Moreover, “the divine” for the Stoics had a very specific meaning: they were pantheists, not theists, meaning that for them god is immanent in the universe, indeed it is the universe itself, permeated by a rational principle known as the Logos. God, for the ancient Stoics, is made of matter, and has little to do with most modern conceptions of the term. Moreover, “providence” was not a Christian-type plan, but the result of the fact that the Cosmos is a living organism that does its thing (see this, chapters 5-8). We don’t understand what our part in that thing is, just like the cells of our body don’t understand what the body is doing. For the Stoics there was no afterlife, no long-term survival of the soul (which was also made of matter), and — pace the famous Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes — no god who is going to answer our prayers. In his Republic, Zeno explicitly said that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic community,

What bothers me about traditional Stoics, however, is not their metaphysical beliefs, as much as I think they are unsustainable in the light of modern science (of course, they would say that this is simply a reflection of my “assumed” worldview). Indeed, a major reason I embraced Stoicism is precisely because I think it is compatible with a number of metaphysical positions, from pantheism (obviously) to deism, from theism to atheism. It’s a big tent, which is consistent with the Stoics’ own concept of cosmopolitanism. But traditional Stoics seem to act in an exclusionary manner, thinking of themselves as holding to The Truth, and everyone else as either wrong or, worse, moved by an agenda of political correctness. Come back to the big tent, brothers and sisters, there is a lot of space over here.

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Meditations, XII.14)

“Will I not walk in the footsteps of my predecessors? I will indeed use the ancient road — but if I find another route that is more direct and has fewer ups and downs, I will stake out that one. Those who advanced these doctrines before us are not our masters but our guides. The truth lies open to all; it has not yet been taken over. Much is left also for those yet to come.” (Letters to Lucilius, XXXIII.11)

Let me turn now to the Stoic equivalent of the prosperity gospel. No, I’m not talking about Ryan Holiday. Even though some of his writings have a mixed business / self-help flavor to it, I’ve met Ryan and I’ve seen him talk about Stoicism. He knows his Marcus Aurelius, and he understands the distinction between a philosophy of life and a bag of tricks: the former includes the latter, but the latter does not the former make. Still, we have also seen an avalanche of “Stoicism for business” and “Stoicism for success” articles, which not only have just a superficial relationship with Stoicism, but in fact constitute a perversion of it. Once again, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal and societal moral improvement. Personally, the focus is on understanding and practicing the dichotomy of control and deploying the four cardinal virtues in everything we do. Societally, things will improve — according to the Stoics — from the bottom up, so to speak: Zeno’s ideal Republic, essentially a peaceful anarchy of wise people, will be realized because we all, individually, do our part to make human society better.

None of this has anything to do with the dogged pursuit of externals, such as money, fame, or success. These are all classed by the Stoics among the preferred indifferents, i.e., things that may be pursued secondarily, so long as they don’t get in the way of practicing virtue. And speaking of practice, the Stoic “bag of tricks” was never meant to advance your business career or make your team win the SuperBowl. Indeed, the Stoics would have been appalled by such applications. The only point of the evening reflection, the exercises in self-deprivation, the premeditatio malorum, and so forth is to allow you to internalize the dichotomy of control and to make you a better person. Period. This is entirely analogous to Christianity: regardless of what you may think of the merits of the religion, being a Christian is about bettering yourself and helping others. It has nothing whatsoever to do with accumulating reaches and property, or any other measure of “success.”

“What decides whether a sum of money is good? The money is not going to tell you; it must be the faculty that makes use of such impressions – reason.” (Discourses, I.1.5)

“Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” (Meditations, VIII.33)

Dulcis in fundo (L., the sweetest for last, except that this is here meant entirely sarcastically), there is the apparent popularity of Stoicism in the men’s rights movement (MRM) and allied sub-movements (like incels, MGTOW, etc. — it’s hard to keep up with the burgeoning acronyms and abbreviations). This is one reason Jordan Peterson is so often talked about in Stoic circles, though the phenomenon is certainly not limited to him. The people I’m referring to love to point out that courage is a Stoic virtue, since they associate it with “manliness.” But they entirely forget that courage, in Stoicism, is a moral virtue, and it is impossible to decouple it from justice which, curiously, hardly goes mentioned in the same quarters. (Besides, the Stoics believed in the unity of virtue, so one should strive to be simultaneously courageous, just, temperate, and prudent.)

“Manly” Stoics of course also point out that “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which means man. While this is true, they also conveniently forget that vir was the translation of the Greek arete, which simply means excellence. And they entirely skip on the several quotes from the ancient Stoics — from Zeno to Seneca to Musonius Rufus — that very clearly talk about the intellectual equality between men and women. True, Greco-Roman society was certainly sexist, and so were some of the Stoics themselves, but the theory (and some of the practice) was way ahead of its time. And why on earth would we want to model 21st century behavior on the worst of what our forebears did and thought?

“I know what you will say, “You quote men as examples: you forget that it is a woman that you are trying to console.” Yet who would say that nature has dealt grudgingly with the minds of women, and stunted their virtues? Believe me, they have the same intellectual power as men, and the same capacity for honourable and generous action.” (To Marcia, On Consolation, XVI)

“Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.” (Meditations, IX.1)

I am not the Pope of Stoicism. Thank Zeus we don’t have a Pope or anything like that. And of course I could be wrong, both in terms of my understanding of the history and of the philosophy of Stoicism. But at the very least all Stoic practitioners should seriously and thoughtfully engage in discussions of these issues, and honestly trying to do their best not just to further the philosophy itself, but to contribute to the welfare of the human polis and the ethical stewardship of the world in which we live.

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43 thoughts on “The growing pains of the Stoic movement

  1. Massimo Post author

    Plutarch,

    this discussion is definitely interesting, though increasinly far from the topic of the OP. In general, however, I’d rather keep comments short and to the point, some of the ones we have exchanged are almost posts on their own…

    Are you saying that in this Republic, Zeno thinks social roles no longer play a part?

    No, every sage will play a part that accords to their own nature. Fathers will be fathers, people who are good at pottery will be potters, and so forth. Again, the point is ethical, not pragmatic. I’m not sure why you consider division of labor to be hierarchical, even taking Epictetus’ metaphor seriously: is a foot somehow more important than a hand? (yes, the obvious exception here would be our mind, but that, again, is what happens when one pushes metaphors too far.)

    it seems like there are two obvious ways of understanding oikeiosis. 1. Universal love without distinctions. 2. Gradated love with distinctions.

    Ah, I think I see one source of confusion here. Obviously I have a special responsibility toward my daughter, but I also have a responsibility not to think of her as more intrinsically important, or worthy of respect or dignity, than any other human being. That’s a crucial aspect of cosmopolitanism, and that’s the point of oikeiosis.

    For practical purposes, of course, I will take special care of my daughter because she depends on me, she is nearby, and so forth. But even so, that’s not the kind of hierarchy Peterson is talking about (remember? it started there!). He seems to think that men ought to be in control, and women put in their place. That sort of hierarchy is entirely unaceptable to a Stoic.

    You, like all of us, inhabit more than two roles. In practice, (1) universal love without distinctions commits you to treating everyone the same, whether your daughter, parents, or a stranger with a vicious character.

    I disagree. The point is to strive for universal love, even of strangers with vicious characters. And no, that does not at all commit me to treat everyone the same. The Stoics take even violent action against injustice when needed, but do so always with regret and understanding.

    What, then, is a human being? A part of a city, first of all that which is made up of gods and human beings, then that which is closest to us and which we call a city, which is a microcosm of the universal city.

    Again, recognizing roles, division of lavor, etc., is in no contradiction at all with the idea that we should accord every human being the same inherent worth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. E. O. Scott

    “Obviously I have a special responsibility toward my daughter, but I also have a responsibility not to think of her as more intrinsically important, or worthy of respect or dignity, than any other human being. That’s a crucial aspect of cosmopolitanism, and that’s the point of oikeiosis.”

    Having read a bit of Chinese philosophy before coming to Stoicism, I find this remark fascinating. If we could take that argument back in a time machine to the Warring States period, we might be able to build a bridge between the Mohists (who advocated a utilitarian universal love) and Confucians (who advocated a virtue-based partiality toward your local family & responsibilities).

    I wonder if such a synthesis already appears somewhere in later Chinese tradition.

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  3. Plutarch

    So far as I am aware, you could probably argue the Neo Confucian Wang Yang Ming, or some other Neo Confucian creates something like a synthesis between the universal love without distinctions of Mohism and the gradated love of Confucianism.

    So far as I know, Wang Yang Ming considered as ‘persons’ we have duties to in our hierarchical ‘family’ not just our biological family, but also all: humans, animals, and inanimate things. While he didn’t conceptualize these duties as equally prioritized duties, and he expected them to conflict, they are duties of concern towards everything nonetheless.

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  4. Plutarch

    Massimo,

    Sorry for the wall of text, and thank you for your continued engagement. I’ll try to keep things short on this one.

    Thanks for patiently clearing me up about Zeno and answering my questions.
    Could you recommend a translation of the fragments we have of his writings for me to pick up?

    What you say about taking special care of your daughter while simultaneously extending your care to others makes perfect sense to me, and sounds like a pragmatic hybrid of (1) universal love without distinctions and (2) gradated love with distinctions. This is what I take oikeiosis to mean in practice, so you and I are in perfect agreement here. I agree that recognizing roles and a division of labor is consistent with treating everyone with worth.

    A place where I think we regretfully disagree, is on whether or not Peterson espouses a comparable kind of oikeiosis in his conception of hierarchy. I think he does. I don’t think he believes that men should have control over women. I agree with you that this idea is incompatible with Stoicism. I also think it is incompatible with Peterson.

    I say this after having twice read 12 rules for Life, watched at least five 1 hour interviews of him, in addition to all of one of Jordan Peterson’s courses on Youtube (His Maps of Meaning course is almost 24 hours of him lecturing in a classroom.) I’ve been looking for the claims men should rule over women carte blanche. I’ve been looking for the misogyny. But so far, I haven’t found either. I’d like to know where you find a claim like this: “He seems to think that men ought to be in control, and women put in their place.”

    A possible root of a quote like this is that Peterson does make claims about what he believes are inherent gender differences which he claims are backed by solid ‘science.’ I, probably just like you, consider these claims questionable. Now, I don’t think he’s lying or fabricating studies from thin air. I just don’t think the studies he’s referring to are as solid as he claims.

    I suspect less nuanced supporters of Peterson could use his arguments about inherent gender differences to support questionable political goals about why men should control women in an oppressive hierarchy (hence my comparison of them to Crates and Alcibiades.) At the same time, I see how (uncharitable) critics of him could represent his belief that there are differences as a commitment to oppressive hierarchies. See Dan Kaufman’s recent article on Electric Agora about negative epithets replacing philosophical discussion.

    Anyway, as we’ve already went over, you suspect I may be being too charitable to Peterson, and fair enough, I may be. Still, I’d appreciate seeing exactly where he makes the claim you say he does, because that simply doesn’t cohere with the Peterson I’ve encountered.

    I’ve tried to find the things that are supposedly misogynistic or oppressive about Peterson and so far, I haven’t seen the problem you are describing. Hopefully this isn’t a case of me suffering from Amathia, but I might very well be wrong, and I would appreciate you showing me what I am missing if I am. 🙂

    Once again Massimo, thanks for your sharing your careful consideration on matters of ethical practice in a public forum where all can learn.

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  5. Modern Stoic

    There seems to be some measure of agreement that we MS supporters should seek to build bridges with TS if they are agreeable. If we are going to fight with anyone let’s pick on modern Epicureans ( just kidding in case anyone takes me literally).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Tyrrell McAllister

    Massimo,

    no my response above was to Tim, not you.

    Sorry for the confusion. I didn’t see any quotes of Fisher in Tim Bartik’s comment, so I had assumed that you meant me.

    … explicitly did not allow someone who does not subscribe to TS to join their Facebook page (I don’t know whether this ban is still in effect).

    I can report that there were no ideological purity tests when I signed up. I just clicked “Follow” and promptly received a welcome message from Chris.

    As you say, still a pretty strict policy, and one that is not welcoming for people with other metaphysical persuasions.

    . Eh, I don’t know. It’s only “not welcoming” if you maintain that “welcoming me” means “They let me argue with them about TS in every forum.”

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  7. Massimo Post author

    Plutarch,

    Could you recommend a translation of the fragments we have of his writings for me to pick up?

    I use the collection of early Stoic fragments by von Arnim, but so far as I know it’s available only in German, Italian, and Spanish. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicorum_Veterum_Fragmenta

    What you say about taking special care of your daughter while simultaneously extending your care to others makes perfect sense to me, and sounds like a pragmatic hybrid of (1) universal love without distinctions and (2) gradated love with distinctions. This is what I take oikeiosis to mean in practice, so you and I are in perfect agreement here

    No, we aren’t. A sage would make absolutely no distinctions between his daughter and anyone else. It’s just that I’m not a sage. But thegoal, following Hierocles, is to pull the external circles as close to oneself as possible. This is really not that different from the Christian concept of love (even) your enemy.

    A place where I think we regretfully disagree, is on whether or not Peterson espouses a comparable kind of oikeiosis in his conception of hierarchy. I think he does.

    No, I’m sorry. I have just watched a few additional clips of him, and I really cannot comprehend how anyone would think of him as even remotely close to Stoicism, or interested in anything like oikeiosis. I have given plenty of links to back this up in my earlier post on him, so I don’t see any good reason to revisit the issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Massimo Post author

    Tyrrell,

    E.O. has already corrected the record concerning TS’s rules. I still find them unwelcoming. The MS Facebook page does not have such limitations. That said, again, I’m glad to hear thet Fisher has softened a bit of late, and I’ll do what I can to see if the people over at the MS site may want to reopen dialogue.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Modern Stoic

    Massimo I agree with you that Peterson is not a Stoic despite some similarities. Personally I disagree with him on many respects but I believe, contrary to his critics on the left that he should be heard. He is a conservative and I think conservative voices should be permissable in a free society. My attitude is ” I disagree totally with your view but I will fight to the death for your right to say it” – that is a classical liberal view. Unfortunately the word “liberal” has come to mean something else, the “liberal left” and I think it is reasonable to say that many with such values demonise conservatism. To be a conservative is not much different from a fascist who must be denied a platform.

    I think however there is a much broader issue here than just Peterson and that is the postmodernism which is so influential in our societies and which is diametrically opposed to everything we stand for as Stoics. Postmodernism does not support the idea of a human nature which as moderns we realise has resulted from evolution. As you know it denies any over arching truth claims such as the universal value of virtue for achieving eudaimonia. It even goes so far as to challenge rationality itself since rationality like science is they claim to be socially constructed.

    These philosophical views and the politics emerging from them represent threats to our society; identity politics focuses on what divides us rather than our common humanity; morality is entirely relativistic and subjective; the impartiality of science is questioned.

    I think this is where Stoicism should be directing its critique. Certainly once the dominant culture wakes up to what Stoicism stands for we can expect a back lash. Hence the importance of distinguishing Stoicism from the men’s movement as you have done here.

    I think we need something like a Stoic Manifesto to outline the humanism, cosmopolitanism and ethnical values we stand for.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Plutarch

    Massimo,

    Thank you for linking to that translation of Zeno. Regarding Peterson: I appreciate your effort to reconsider your position and also respect the fact your opinion has not changed. On the subject of Peterson and his potential compatibility with Stoicism (or lack thereof) it does not seem we will agree for now and as you’d said, there’s no reason to revisit the issue at this point. Thanks for the good discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Plutarch

    Modern Stoic, I agree with much of what you are saying and think Peterson (as he himself would agree) is just symbolic of larger issues in how we (fail to) practice and conceptualize virtue, and that big tents are better (to tie this back into the OP.)

    I don’t know if we need a Stoic manifesto per se, but then again, what else is this blog and Masimos book if not an excellent modern protreptic?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Massimo Post author

    Modern,

    but I believe, contrary to his critics on the left that he should be heard

    I agree, I’m not in favor of shutting down speech, deplatforming, etc. That said, I see no danger that Peterson is going to lose his platform. His YT channel has more than a million subscribers (a good chunk of whom pay for it), his book is a bestseller, and he is all over the media.

    I think however there is a much broader issue here than just Peterson and that is the postmodernism which is so influential in our societies and which is diametrically opposed to everything we stand for as Stoics

    I certainly agree that postmodernism is not Stoic, but I honestly think PM peaked in the ’80s and ’90s and has been on the retreat since. Nowadays the most powerful voices of relativism come from the far right, beginning with Trump’s fake news and alternative facts.

    I think we need something like a Stoic Manifesto to outline the humanism, cosmopolitanism and ethnical values we stand for.

    Not at all a bad idea…

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Tyrrell McAllister

    Massimo,

    That said, again, I’m glad to hear thet Fisher has softened a bit of late, and I’ll do what I can to see if the people over at the MS site may want to reopen dialogue.

    That’s all anyone could ask. I’ll close just by seconding E. O. Scott’s endorsement of Chris’s podcast. It really is very good, even if, like me, you hold to a more secular worldview.

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